so how would you write about a walk?
an autobiography… an anthology
— contents —
* a walk
Followup: Theological Journey
When I set out for my walk, it seems I should be communing with the Universe, The Other, the One – but it feels like I am just walking. Not “communing.” Not thinking, brain to Brain. Not Wordsworth’s sense of a Presence, which has always been so appealing
And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels 100 All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
“Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey: on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798” (lines 94-102)
Yet somehow my walk seems more significant than “just walking.”
In Christian tradition, maybe this is the apophatic way, the Via Negativa of the Desert Fathers – the way that says God is “not this,” “not that.” It’s true: hearing sermons or everyday expressions, I do often bristle thinking “God is not that way!” or “God is not like that”! – but when it comes to actual postulates about “God,” I don’t have them. Even what I know of Process Theology seems to affirm too much: “God is in process”; “God is evolving.” But what is “God”?
Growing up in conservative Christianity, I used to worry that I was in hell. Or headed there, since it’s taught that “Faith is a gift” – therefore if I don’t have it, and traditional Christianity is true, I am evidently one of the un-elect.
A comfort along the way was rediscovering Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”:
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here…”
Reading that brought a sudden shock of solace.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
© Max Ehrmann 1927 http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~gongsu/desiderata_textonly.html
Now, thinking back on all those years of worrying and pondering, I sometimes have a flash of anger to think that a tradition can falsely – as I see it – rob you of your birthright and shame you as an unwelcome blot on creation, a stranger in your own land. My gay brothers and sisters know of this all too well. And what a colossal waste of time and energy, to fight these battles! I have to assume my share of the blame – many simply recognize a view is not for them and move away. On the other hand, perhaps those of us who struggle, or once have, are playing our parts in the long development of understanding, and the struggle is one to honor.
Even “Desiderata,” though, has been a step too far for me, as it concludes,
“And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be…”
The very word “conceive” betrays the problem that Voltaire observed: “If God has made us in God’s image, we have returned God the favor” – creating “God” in our own image. I loved the wry observation of visiting professor Fred Craddock at Luther Seminary: Some of us talk as though we had “circled God, taking pictures.” Further, I am not at all certain that “the universe is unfolding as it should.” As I look at the violence in nature and in human nature, I find it hard to postulate a benign design.
Given all my “negativa,” it seems very odd that I should be a minister of Word and sacrament, or Teaching Elder, in a Christian community. Regularly I ask myself: should I officially declare the perspectives that I’m becoming more and more settled in, and move in a different path?
But… I’ve been becoming aware also of a growing sense that I am not moving away from, but instead moving more deeply into, moving “through” – through externals and into enduring reality. One clue is that, although I doubt probably most of the Christian dogma about God that I am aware of, still, when I have thought about officially separating, I have felt — not a superficial, but an existential — gloom, and anxiety.
Some Christians would say: That is a sign that you would be moving in the direction of the Dark Side. But I reject that. I think if this direction were the Dark Side, the Dali Llama and other compassionate souls would sense that and become Christian. Conservative Christians would warn in reply, “the devil delights in appearing as an angel of light.” But I reject that characterization of their views. On the other hand, if Christianity is in no way true, my atheist friends could be correct that my feelings would be a residual superstition. But it’s also possible that it’s deeper than that.
A helpful brother along the way, Thich Nhat Hanh, I’ve taken to heart. About spiritual seekers from the West who come to him, he wrote — in “Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers”:
“Because they have suffered so much they want to have nothing to do with their family, their church, their society, and their culture. They want to become someone else, they want to be Indian or Chinese or they want to become Vietnamese. They want to become a Buddhist because they have hated everything relating to their roots. Have they succeeded in leaving everything behind in order to become something completely new? The answer is no.
“When these people come to Plum Village, for instance, I recognize them right away. I recognize them right away as wandering souls or hungry souls. Yes, they are very hungry. They are hungry for something beautiful to believe in, for something good to believe in. They are hungry for something true to believe in. They want to leave behind everything that belongs to their society and culture.
“….My tendency is to tell them that a person without roots cannot be a happy person. You have to go back to your roots. You have to go back to your family. You have to go back to your culture. You have to go back to your church. However, that is exactly what they don’t want to do, and they often become angry when we try to tell them so.” (182-183)
In beautifully meditative writing, Thich says,
“We have blood ancestors but we also have spiritual ancestors. If you were born in the West there is a big chance you are a child of Jesus and that you have Jesus as your ancestor. Jesus is one of the many spiritual ancestors of Europeans. You may not consider yourself a Christian, but that does not prevent Jesus from being one of your spiritual ancestors because your great-grandfather might have been a good Christian. He has transmitted to you the seed, the energy, the love, and the insight of Jesus….
“There are those who think that they don’t have anything to do with Christianity. They hate Christianity. They want to leave Christianity behind, but in the body and spirit of these people Jesus may be very present and very real. The energy, the insight, and the love of Jesus may be hiding in them….
“A Buddhist is someone who considers the Buddha as one of his spiritual ancestors. You can say that the Buddha is an enlightened one, a great Bodhisttva, a teacher, and the founder of Buddhism. You can say that the Buddha is your spiritual ancestor. To me, the Buddha is very real. I can touch him at any time I want. I can profit from his energy and insight any time I want. It is very real. He is in every cell of my body. Every time I need him I have ways to call for him and to make his energy manifest….
“It is possible to know the Buddha and at the same time know Jesus.” (189-190; 195)
Traditional Christianity would worry that this is syncretism, a great evil in the view of the Hebrew scriptures and of the New Testament outside of the gospels. To integrate differing systems of thought is seen as polluting true religion with false. But as I read theologian Paul F. Knitter’s “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” and his “Jesus and the Other Names,” and as I have met other voices, old and new, in the denomination I am part of, I think there is a strand within official bounds that welcomes many “spiritual ancestors.”
I have begun to think of Christianity as one constellation of Carl Jung’s ‘archetypes’: that is, our common human experience is expressed in stories and wisdom sayings around the globe and through the ages, and the Hebrew bible and New Testament record many of those bedrock truths and experiences.
What I do believe of Christianity, with pretty much all my heart and soul (though I don’t do it), is that love and compassion are the highest good; sacrificial love highest of all.
I believe in loving our enemies, and stay in abject awe of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who actually did that. As I become more negative about human beings — watching people set off bombs to create maximum carnage, seeing a man who imprisoned girls in his house for a decade and abused them to miscarry when they conceived — Dr. King’s soul shines as a dazzling light. Who can honor individuals who do such things as worthy of respect as a form of life? Yet Dr. King wrote of winning “a double victory”:
“We will not only win freedom for ourselves;
we will so appeal to your heart and conscience
that we will win you in the process,
and our victory will be a double victory.”
As I have read more deeply into his speeches and sermons, I have realized that one of the great souls of history has been among us, and continues to influence us.
A Christmas Sermon on Peace
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
….I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” (read more)
I am intrigued that similar words are attributed to the Buddha in “Jesus and Buddha: the Parallel Sayings“:
“Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth….Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar with truth.” Dhammapada 1.5 & 17.3
And I’ve recently become aware of Japanese aikido — “Ueshiba’s martial arts philosophy of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others…. mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution, not only is the receiver unharmed, but so is the attacker….”
Seems there is even more practice of love around the world than I have been aware of. There’s even a Global Nonviolent Action Database!
Obviously, this is the only way for interior peace in every relationship…. but it’s so devilishly hard to do — even when the challenge is only a political or theological difference. Dr. King’s and Jesus’ attitude toward people engaged in pure evil blows me away. Yet even warriors say we must. Journalist David Ignatius reports: “When CBS News brought Dwight Eisenhower back to Normandy for the 20th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1964, you might have expected the former commander of Allied forces to conclude with a triumphal comment. Instead, CBS captured an anguished Eisenhower against the backdrop of crosses at the U.S. cemetery at St. Laurent, ruminating: ‘We must find some way… to gain an eternal peace for this world.’”
Is this just a pipe dream? I love reading people like Daniel Maguire, who argues in “The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just War Legacy” that peace with justice is no dreamy fantasy but a pragmatic possibility. [ I reviewed it at Amazon : ) ] And the world is amazingly full of dramatic and heart-stirring work that has been long underway in organizations like the Nonviolent Peaceforce and Christian Peacemaker Teams (whose thought-provoking tagline is “Getting in ‘The Way,’ ” playing off early Christianity’s being known as “The Way.”) Myriads of new initiatives spring up continually, like the “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra” that gathers young musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries of the Middle East in the spirit of Goethe’s “West-Eastern Divan” — a “divan,” or “collection,” of dialogues that envision world culture. The Pentagon has actually called in a class of fourth-graders who play with gobsmacking wisdom the “World Peace Game,” as canny teacher John Hunter turns them loose on it year by year.
Just recently I’ve learned the awesome story of Noor Inayat Khan, “the Sufi Saint” of World War II. Her order explains: “Noor, who espoused the Gandhian principles of non-violence, was outraged by the depredations of the Nazis. She felt called to take part in the work of liberating Europe, but was dismayed by the paradox of killing to prevent violence. She reconciled these irreconcilables by voluntarily putting herself in the greatest peril, as a radio operator behind enemy lines in occupied France.” Her brother remembers, “All those who knew her had a deep respect for whilst being moved by some endearing feature of her being. Was it because she so deeply cared for all those she came across – even her jailers?”
Her story as told by her Sufi Order begins:
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was the first child of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan and his American wife, Amina Begum (nee Ora Ray Baker). With the genetic heritage of Eastern and Western Mystics, Noor was a child of destiny. She deeply affected the hearts of all those she encountered, from her childhood meeting with her father’s disciples, to the Nazi interrogators who destroyed her body, but could not break her spirit. (read more)
Even in the seemingly endless carnage which is 2016 Syria, a network of non-violence lifts a powerful voice on Facebook. Its online map illustrates its strength at the outset of the Arab Spring, and in today’s chaos, it is incredible to realize they are still standing strong.
Still — the urgent and ethically fraught question remains — in a world in which holocaust happens and suicide bombers detonate, does this mean abstaining from violence against fellow humans absolutely? If we did, and only the vengeful and rapacious take up arms, and if there is a question as to whether there actually is an all-powerful God Who will cause it to all come right, or whether “the moral arc of the universe” really does “bend toward justice,” would all the compassionate ones eventually be obliterated or enslaved?
I don’t know what I would do under existential challenge: I’ve never had to face even the possibility of being drafted into military service. I know I must support peace with justice in every way I can, materially and time-wise. But suppose I were drafted to oppose an invading army? and our nation had tried honestly to negotiate peace, all the “Just-War” criteria met? I have the suspicion I might feel compelled to resist militarily… but I’m truly not sure.
I have to question myself: wouldn’t I just be perpetuating violence? What if there actually are enough people around the globe to stop warfare, if we would all act together — more “peaceniks” than “warriors”? What if there is solid reality behind the child’s question, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” With the development of global communications, maybe it’s already possible to reach a critical mass of peacemakers who are nonviolent – not only nonviolent on moral grounds, but because that advances their goals most effectively. What if Egypt, that swirling experiment in human forces during the Arab Spring, having studied the work of Gene Sharp (“the Machiavelli of nonviolence”) and others, and in spite of such disheartening setbacks, is in the long process of developing such a community?
If people of good will worldwide taught conflict resolution pre-K through graduation; if all of us were conscripted, maybe at age 18, for two years of nonviolent peacemaking – I wonder if we really might “overcome evil with good,” as Paul commands in his letter to the Romans. Deployed — rather than “suicide bombers” – would be “sacrificial balmers,” as my sister, Rae, and I dub them. Some of us would lose our lives – but, as Maguire points out in “The Horrors We Bless,” millions more die now from our current habits of war and policing.
As effects grew, fewer and fewer would be harmed, and – equally essential – fewer would suffer the remorse of having had to harm another. I feel deeply guilty over the waking nightmare suffered by returning soldiers who are tormented by what they have been required to do. This tragically demonstrates how abjectly we have failed to use our freedom to wage peace.
Some say the time of peace will arrive only when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God.” But woe — Protestants and Catholics fought fiercely and furiously during The Troubles in Ireland, without doubt involving hundreds if not thousands on each side believing themselves bowing the knee to Jesus. Even Paul’s paean to peacemaking in Romans 12 can’t resist the enticement of “heaping coals of fire” on the heads of the enemies. Ouch.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
I’m not able to reach an abstract principle here, though I’m drawn to Kant’s “moral imperative” – to act in the way that would bring good if every other person in the world did the same thing. When the concrete challenge arises, I will have to think it through the best I can – with full awareness that I may be doing the wrong thing.
But there is one unquestionable and urgent action: we must actively and ceaselessly wage peace. Every human being – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, “spiritual-not-religious,” “not-spiritual-not-religious” – all of us – have exciting and urgent work to rise to Dr. King’s challenge in “The World House,” probably the greatest summation of his teaching, found as the concluding chapter of “Where Do We Go from Here — Chaos or Community?”:
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now….
We still have a choice today:
nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihiliation.
This may well be humanity’s last chance to choose between
chaos and community.”
His 1964 Nobel Lecture concluded:
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone
that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His
love is perfected in us.
I love the poignant and unforgettable vision of peacemaking and healing in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” when Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” :
“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation….
“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals….” (it’s worth reading the whole link!)
from Slaughterhouse Five: or the Children’s Crusade, © 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr; all rights reserved
Might it be so!!!
The love I believe in extends to all things. I love the Hebrew vision of The Peaceable Kingdom :
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11
A love for all things is expressed so movingly in the speech attributed to Chief Seattle:
Every part of this earth is sacred,
every shining pine needle, every sandy shore,
every mist in the dark woods,
every clearing and humming insect is holy.
The rocky crest, the juices of the meadow, the beasts and all the people,
all belong to the same family.
Teach your children that the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
The water’s murmur is the voice of our father’s father.
We are part of the earth, and the earth is part of us.
The rivers are our brothers; they quench our thirst.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters.
The air is precious.
For all of us share the same breath.
The wind that gave our grandparents breath also receives their last sigh.
The wind gave our children the spirit of life.
This we know, the earth does not belong to us;
we belong to the earth.
This we know, all things are connected,
like the blood which unites one family.
All things are connected.
Our God is the same God, whose compassion is equal for all.
For we did not weave the web of life;
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web
we do to ourselves.
Native American Sunday bulletin, May 6, 1990, St. Luke Presbyterian Church, Wayzata MN
“Reverence for Life” was the foundational principle of Albert Schweitzer — an early hero for me and an inspiration as I read the story of this gifted organist and theologian in Europe becoming a jungle doctor in Africa. His struggle to discover a bedrock ethical principle was a long one, and it’s a thrill to read his breakthrough moment in “Out of My Life and Thought” and “More from the Primeval Forrest”:
Slowly we crept upstream, laboriously feeling – it was the dry season – for the channels between the sandbanks. Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, “Reverence for Life.” The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible….
To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will to live. At the same time the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own. He accepts as being good: to preserve life, to promote life, to raise to its highest value life which is capable of development; and as being evil: to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life which is capable of development. This is the absolute, fundamental principle of the moral, and it is a necessity of thought. (Thought,124-126)
I love this picture of a Sunday service at Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambarene:
“When the Doctor preaches to the natives at the Sunday services, an interpreter on each side, the animals are there also. The weaver birds chatter in the palms overhead, the monkeys scramble noisily on the iron roofs, the domestic animals – hens, geese, dogs, cats, turkeys, goats and sheep – wander in and out among the natives who have gathered to hear the strange gospel. The Doctor has paused for a moment, but the dog begins to speak to the animal world about him.” [don’t remember book title! Found identical pic on net]
The great challenge, of course, is the inescapable question: so – you believe in wanting good for all things. But what about things that are in conflict with each other? Cancer cells and bodies? Tornadoes and trees? Corn and corn borers? Hawks and sparrows? Spiders and flies?
Evolutionary history demands humility as we look out over the world and universe. The cancer cells that cause us such misery could be on the way to a new lifeform; or viewed from a certain angle, they might appear beautiful. Value judgments are involved too if one attempts to resolve the conflict by positing a universe or a God Who is “in process” — for we have to decide which evolutions are “best for the universe” or “toward God.” Even to choose “those that bring the most well-being for the most beings” involves choosing how to define “well-being,” and whether to weight some beings more heavily than others.
But things like violence seem to have no possibility of appearing good or beautiful, from any angle. Lions bringing down zebras. Crocodiles lunging for antelope. Spiders liquifying the insides of bugs. It brings one flat up against the tragic question: what is going on here, that there is built into the web of life this horror and suffering?
A vivid memory for me has been of sitting on Janie Griffin’s porch one hot summer afternoon when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, in transfixed horror watching a battle to the death in a roofcorner web. A spider struggled with a wasp, violently twisting and turning. I don’t remember the outcome – just the sheer horror of the struggle.
When Schweitzer grapples with the conflict inherent in Reverence for Life, he says that we simply do all the good we can.
“The world, however, offers us the horrible drama of will-to-live divided against itself. One existence holds its own at the cost of another: one destroys another. Only in the thinking man has the will-to-live become conscious of other will-to-live, and desirous of solidarity with it. This solidarity, however, he cannot completely bring about, because man is subject to the puzzling and horrible law of being obliged to live at the cost of other life, and to incur again and again the guilt of destroying and injuring life. But as an ethical being he strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity, and as one who has become enlightened and merciful to put a stop to this disunion (Selbstentzweiung) of the will-to-live so far as the influence of his own existence reaches. He thirsts to be permitted to preserve his humanity and to be able to bring to other existences release from their sufferings.“ (Thought,126)
The Asian Indian concept of ‘ahimsa’ – ’cause no harm to other living things’ – I’ve never seriously studied. It sort of floats in the background of my mind as an ideal that I think of ruefully as I swat a mosquito and with celebration as I gingerly carry outside a wasp I’ve lured onto a broom – and try not to think about at all when dislodging a tick. But I haven’t read deeply. Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent victory over England for India’s independence awes me; but history also describes him as a personality with sharp edges, someone who did not seem to practice ahimsa consistently in relations with his wife. I can throw no stones here! – but this anomaly has meant that although I think of ahimsa now and then with a smile, it has not been a central impetus for me. Maybe as I continue to learn – and possibly read different Gandhi biographies! – ahimsa will provide unique clues.
Buddhism seems not to worry about conflicts or origins – you just strive to relieve suffering. Native Americans and others speak of a “circle of life,” accepting existence as it is given to us, speaking of a cycle of births and deaths and births. Tai Chi, with its gracious and graceful attitudes likewise seems to simply accept and work with the negative, as its symbol suggests:
the tai chi tu or taijitu
And recently I’ve begun reading more deeply into Carl Jung, with his insistence that one must embrace one’s “shadow” or the world’s “dark side.”
But as much as I love Tai Chi form (I was shocked to discover it’s a martial art and still struggle against being a push-hands student!), respect Buddhism and Native American spirituality, and enjoy Jung, I have never been content to simply accept the negative as part of the bedrock order of things, while nevertheless working to increase the good relative to what we think of as evil. Beyond my own individual interactions, I seem always to be looking for a way to bring everything into harmony. [ ‘I object!’ says the dust mote : ) ] A Cycle of Life is not satisfactory either, as astronomers tell us that everything we know in the universe is speeding away from everything else, so that millennia from now earthlings will not be able to see anything in our vicinity in space – just blackness. That is not very circular! – unless that is part of the circle.
Practically, there just seems to be no way for a human – even a vegetarian – to live without entailing the death of other living things — an ecological “Moral Man In Immoral Society.” So far it seems that the best one can do, when seemingly compelled to choose one life against another, is to act with regret, or sorrow — and with respect for the form of life we act against, if only a fleeting awareness. I have always admired the vignettes of Native Americans’ thanking the animal they have hunted for sustaining them and their families. That seems closest to my wrestling with the dilemma. I want to start regularly reflecting intentionally, to honor these forms that give me life – maybe the time of thanks before meals?
Traditionally, I’m not sure that Christianity fully embraced the Hebrew “Peaceable Kingdom” as guiding standard. If the “end times” discourses attributed to Jesus are what he actually said and thought, the climax of existence seems to be a cataclysm rather than a healing of all things. The book of Revelation does speak of the end of tears, the tree of life, and leaves for the healing of the nations – but this follows horrific violence, and some humans exist in parallel agony – which certainly cannot be a preferred state of things – so here I would seem more Hebrew than traditionally Christian. Scholars argue that the writer of Revelation is metaphorically addressing the horrors he is facing in the present – but all the same, his remedy for the suffering appears to involve yet more violence in the end.
Recently I’ve become newly aware of Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation” (great book talk here ) and am intrigued by his theory: that historical criticism establishes that Jesus was executed as a nonviolent resister to Rome, which provides a “canon within the canon” similar to the Lutheran “grace” – a canon of nonviolence. By that standard, the “End Times” Jesus would be not accurate, and the authentic sayings would be those like “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father.” (Mtt.10:29,Lk12:6)
Crossan’s approach would prejudice too the healing of all things in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration
…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay
and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth
right up to the present time.” [8:19-22]
Til now, I’ve thought that to affirm only the harmonious would have to be an arbitrary decision in theology. I’m very intrigued by “Crossan’s Razor” and exploring more!
Whatever one’s stance on loving all things, life’s obvious suffering poses a difficult question to traditional Christian ideas of “God.”
If you think of some things as negative, you must decide whether your idea of “God” includes them. The prophet Isaiah writes that God says,, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord who do all these things” [45.7]. Theologian Paul Tillich, as I understand him, seems to indicate something like this when he speaks of God as “the ground of all being.” That would include everything, good and ill, I would think. Isaiah and Tillich would seem to answer Blake’s question to the Tiger: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” with an unequivocal Yes.
On the other hand, we read the opening verses of the Hebrew Bible: “And God saw all that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures we see statements like I John’s “God is light; in him is no darkness at all” ( 1:5). For myself, these are the ideas of “God” worthy of worship that I would choose to postulate. I am not ready to think of “God” as encompassing all that we think of as evil. Those first verses of Genesis have taken root in my head.
King James Version
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
3 And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.
Thus the conundrum elegantly expressed in Archibald MacLeish’s play “J.B.”:
If God be God, he is not good;
If God be good, he is not God.
St. Augustine seems to try to sidestep the issue by regarding evil as the “absence of good” – but that seems woefully inadequate to the duckling’s being swallowed alive by the heron as the mother duck frantically circles – to say nothing of the Holocaust.
Some versions of Christianity seek to resolve the dilemma by maintaining that all the disharmony, even in nature, is a result of humans’ wrongdoing. I find that very hard to take seriously. We may indeed have so altered the biosphere that we are having profound effects on the earth, but natural forces we think of as “destructive” predate our footprint.
Most often, Christianity holds either that “the glory prepared for us far outweighs our momentary sufferings” — suffering being perhaps a necessary consequence of freedom of the will — or that there is some form of dualism – genuine struggle between a good God and a destructive force or forces.
The “momentary” approach attempts to defend both God’s power and God’s goodness. However, this concept is beautifully arraigned by Dostoevsky in “The Brothers Karamazov,” when Ivan demands of his brother Alyosha:
“Tell me yourself, I challenge you answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature, that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
” ‘No, I wouldn’t consent,’ said Alyosha softly”
“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, kicked her for no reason, till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty – shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. It was her mother, her mother who did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, Alyosha, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!…I am making you suffer, Alyosha. I’ll stop if you like.”
“Never mind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha
…”Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’…then of course the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what troubles me is that I can’t accept that harmony…. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its  tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors. What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,” chapter: “Rebellion,” 223-6
I incline to agree with Ivan – and Alyosha. The violence in nature and “permitted” in human nature causes me to doubt that there is a creator ex nihilo who is good and omnipotent. If there indeed is a good creative power, it would appear obvious that that power does not always get its own way.
Which leaves me with the second approach – that there is some form of dualism or genuine struggle between what we consider good and evil. Some theists hold that God is “in process” – evolving – and we are part of that process; while others assert, as in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism , that the outcome of the struggle is truly in doubt or is in a steady state.
Dualisms are appealing because they can preserve the goodness of one’s idea of “God” and make us God’s allies against those who would torment Dostoevsky’s child. During my Clinical Pastoral Education at Duke in the Fall of 1995, a deep sense of this mortal struggle pressed on me, and I thought of themes like Faber’s hymn words “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven.” When my turn came to offer the weekly devotional, I chose a theme something like Bonhoeffer’s poem “Christians and Others,” which asks, “Who will stand with God in God’s hour of grieving?”
Christians and Others
All men go to God in their distress,
seek help and pray for bread and happiness,
deliverance from pain, guilt and death,
All men do, Christians and others
All men go to God in His distress
find Him poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
watch Him tormented by sin, weakness and death.
Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving
God goes to all men in their distress,
satisfies body and soul with His bread,
dies, crucified for all, Christians and others,
and both alike forgiving.
In the quiet hospital chapel, I reflected how
….we routinely think of going to God for peace, comfort, and healing… but here at the hospital we are moving into a part of God that may be new to some of us — and may be scary to contemplate — the vulnerability of God. We may be familiar with the pain of God as a historical artifact — the pain of the cross — but we may not have thought much about what it costs God in the present to stay in contact with us human beings.
We are told throughout the Bible that God is the God of compassion — as the hymnwriter says, “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven” – so when every day at this regional trauma center we see horrific suffering, one has to wonder about the suffering of God.
I shared the times
….Jesus told his disciples straight out what horror he was facing, and that, soon – yet every time, they not only didn’t “hear” him, but immediately did something contrary to his whole mission — like joust about who would be the greatest in the kingdom. In the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus asks, “Could you not watch with me for one hour?”
Who hears the pain of God, the loneliness of God, as God suffers with humans in situations that cause most of us to run instead in the opposite direction?
I wondered whether
– just as in our own grieving, it helps us to have a compassionate presence alongside – perhaps it helps God that we do not turn away. We don’t usually think of God as needy – and maybe God isn’t — but I wonder.
I ended with,
“I have a hunch: that when that on-call buzzer sounds off, God says….”
….and at this exact instant, the on-call buzzer did alarm startlingly throughout the chapel as I finished the sentence,
“God says, ‘Thank you for taking that call.’ ”
And everybody laughed a little mystified laugh. – I was pretty thunderstruck, myself.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?
Frederick W. Faber 1854
In all these ponderings about “God and all things,” I have always appreciated the Name of God in the Hebrew Bible – YHWH, or “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” or “I CAUSE TO COME INTO BEING THAT WHICH COMES INTO BEING.” That Name reminds me that whatever I may decide that I think about God, God “is” or “is not” regardless of whatever I may think. Somehow I’ve seemed to feel that if I conclude there cannot be “God,” that means there is none, whereas if I think there’s hope that God is, then there may be God. I like being kept aware that if I have concluded that I think there is no God and am mistaken, God has not thereby been eliminated from the skies and earth – but is waiting for me to become aware. Somehow that is a comforting thought during the periods when I am concluding that the idea of “God,” even in its most liberal understandings, is very unlikely to be real.
That Name reminds me of the Ojibwa saying that I periodically recall with gratitude: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind is bearing me across the sky.” The Little Zen Companion, David Schiller, p.43
It has begun to dawn on me in recent years that all the beauty and order that exists must also be taken into account and extrapolated from: “the problem of the existence of good.” To give up the concept of some good power greater than we, based on all my Christian and natural negativa, could be unwarranted. And it seems more than a little hubristic to posit ourselves as the highest or most conscious form of life in the universe!
I have been intrigued recently by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s meditations on what we might mean when we say “God.” In his memoir “The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey” he speaks of “this all encompassing vitality and presence”; “the most profound and absolute reality.” (89) He says, “We can call it by many names, God, Allah, transcendent being, the consciousness which comprehends all life. But however we name it, it is present, whether or not we realise it, in every interaction and in all consciousness at all times.” 
He has a deep love for nature, and sees everything fit together:
“Ultimately the same being whose vitality traverses all worlds holds us together as fragments among all the countless manifestations of the same consciousness. Here is God’s presence, in the birds, in the tree and in between us.” (95)
“When the ‘I’ within us, that is, the part of us composed of the desires, envies, angers and frustrations which comprise our ego, sleeps, then, and only truly then, does our heart fully come awake and we discover that we are part of a vast and breathing world permeated by the presence of God. We too belong to this vibrant, luminous universe, and the divine presence, in the course of its ceaseless traverse through all things, flows even through us, vital, conscious, but mortal partners in the infinite life of God. Such moments of awareness are recognised not only by the mind, or even in the heart; we know them with our soul. They form life’s most privileged and profound experiences and I hope my children will apprehend them many times.” 
Although I would not use the term “a being,” which hints at something we can get our minds around and apprehend, I think openness to this possible “vitality” is where I am now. I like the possibility that there may be a more-than-personal “vitality” – something along the lines of “intelligence” – that people over the millennia have called “God.” I remember exploring books in college and grad school that argued that it is reasonable to extrapolate from the existence of human intelligence to the possibility of something “more-than-personal” – something “beyond personality” ….perhaps Wordsworth’s and Wittenberg’s “divine presence.”
Theologian Marcus Borg speaks in this vein when he says, “I think my relationship to God is personal, even though I don’t think of God as ‘a person.’ ” In a moving confessional video, Borg describes to a small circle how he thinks of God. Describing his own mystical experiences, he asks, “What are you going to call that?” Whatever that luminous reality is, Borg seems to say, he chooses to call “God.”
I love Borg’s descriptions, and I agree with him on almost all of what he shares here — but I am not sure about the leap to calling his experience an experience of external reality. It seems to me he could be simply describing a mental state – a glorious one, as he describes it, but to me it’s possible it does not refer to anything outside his own mind, however convincing it may be to him. Of course, if “mind” is the ultimate reality, then whatever this is may be by definition ultimately real. But I prefer to restrict ultimate reality to things accessible not only to me, but to those outside me as well.
Until I looked back at my journaling, I remembered the “more-than-personal possibility” as an argument from process philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. I remember liking what I read from him at college. But I’m interested to realize that this approach was from David E. Trueblood – and that looking afresh now at Whitehead, especially his “Process and Reality,” Whitehead is even more intriguing still as he says: “[C]reativity is the ultimate behind all forms, inexplicable by forms, and conditioned by its creatures.”  As I understand him at this point, the effect of this creativity on us and the world is what he terms “God” (31-2); and the aim of religions is “refreshment and companionship.” 
Whitehead describes the first sparks of Christianity, before it took on an authoritarian character, as “The brief Galilean vision of humility” (, writing,
[T]he Galilean origin of Christianity…dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is…a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.” 
God, says Whitehead, is “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.”  God is “the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands.” 
God is in the universe, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts. But this creation is a continuing process, and `the process is itself the actuality,’ since no sooner do you arrive than you start on a fresh journey. Insofar as we partake of this creative process do we partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is our immortality, reducing the question of whether our individuality survives death of the body to the estate of an irrelevancy. Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.
Recently I have begun learning about the Sufi way taught by Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan and his son Vilayat. They speak of us humans as “the divine glance,” an intriguing concept I look forward to trying to understand. Hazrat forewarns explorers:
There are people who say, “I am God.” This is insolence, stupidity. It is foolish to say such things. They insult the greatest ideal that the prophets and saviors of humanity have always respected. Such people can never reach spiritual perfection. In order to reach spiritual perfection the first thing is to destroy this false self. First this delusion must be destroyed. And this is done by the ways taught by the great teachers, ways of concentration and meditation, by the power of which one forgets oneself and removes one’s consciousness from oneself, in other words rises from one’s limited being. In this way a person effaces himself from his own consciousness, and places God in his consciousness instead of his limited self. And it is in this way that he arrives at that perfection which every soul is seeking. Hazrat Inayat Khan
(Fun fact: Hazrat taught that “…the proper name of God is ‘origin.’ The word ‘God’ is related to the Arabic Djod, which has this meaning.”)
Another recent puzzle…. I began to ask myself what it means that it’s when I’m outside and away from other people that I feel most potentially connected with whatever God may be. At church, no matter how inspiring, nor how refreshed I may feel afterward, still it feels most like I am just gathering information… I don’t really feel connected with God God’s-self. That potential is felt while I’m walking.
Why would the songs of birds and the airy run of deer seem to speak more of God God’s-self than anything other people do or sing? I am wondering if maybe it’s because other people seem to be more personal agents, so that one can’t get beyond their ideas to relate to God in God’s-self – though they can furnish clues. Or maybe it’s because I’m always conscious of or worrying about others’ attitude toward me, and can’t get beyond that.
Thoughts in progress!
An odd thing about my accepting the possibility of some good “vitality” that is “more than personal”: for some reason I am not prepared to likewise accept the idea of a somewhat personal, super-personal evil power. Striving against evil in people and institutions is one thing; I engage readily, though not often enough. But to postulate a spiritual “presence” that is evil – that creeps me out — especially late at night.
Some Christians insist that evil powers must be a direct focus of our attention: that, although evil is a lesser power than God, we are engaged – aware or not – in “spiritual warfare” with demons and powers, if not Satan himself. But for me, in the phraseology of traditional Christianity, I have preferred to simply stick doggedly close to the good, to the spirit of God — to keep my eyes fixed on that while working for the good, and to trust determinedly that “the power that is in us is greater than the power that is in ‘the world’ ” – whatever that is.
This may be cowardly. Jesus met the bad, whatever it is, full force; probably I should too. On the other hand, it may be foolishly pretentious to imagine trying to imitate Jesus in this department. For now, I would say the best path is to determinedly overcome evil with good.
As for whether this “good” “something” will ultimately prevail over what we perceive as evil, I don’t think we can foresee. I am not sure that the “moral arc bends toward justice,” as Dr. King paraphrased Theodore Parker, the 19th Century Unitarian minister and abolitionist. I have the feeling I like to hang around Christian “victory” talk as around a warm fire, even if I am agnostic on that point. But whatever the odds, I want to throw my lot with the way of compassion, whether or not it will triumph in the end.
The Moral Arc of the Universe
– the Rev. Theodore Parker
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.
Theodore Parker, 19th-Century Unitarian Minister & Abolitionist
Like most human beings who have encountered Christianity, I often wonder who this Jesus is – who he was – how much of the record about him is accurate. Recently I’ve been surprised to learn there is a strong “mythicist” movement which argues there was no such character as Jesus of Nazareth; but I take as sound Bart Ehrman’s argument that there was a historical figure [“Did Jesus Exist?” 2013]. However, I have wondered with some trepidation whether, if I time-traveled to 32c.e., I would like Jesus. Would the historical Jesus be disappointing? Would I think him a scruffy talker? Nowadays I think how young he was! I think the historical Jesus would be very disappointed with me. (Too wishy-washy.) Maybe I would be captivated, enthralled – that would be nice to think.
I severely doubt I would wonder if he were God in some sense, any more than I wonder that about Dr. King – and I surely do wonder at Dr. Martin!! This view, I think there is room for in the Christian tradition. Around the turn of the millennium, a retreat in another denomination was encouraging when an official told the story of the seminarian accused of denying the divinity of Christ. “Sir!” the seminarian drew himself up in indignation: “I have never denied the divinity of any human being.”
When my sister and I began constructing “our” religion a few years ago (if we were founding a religion, what would it be like), we — or maybe I? — started talking about “the good Jesus” – by which I mean, the view of Jesus that I think is good. Not the Jesus who says, “Unless you believe my death paid for your sins, you will burn eternally in hell,” but the Jesus who says “Blessed are the poor – or ‘poor in spirit’ – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” As many have observed: the Bible is like a Rorschach test – the patterns one sees depends upon the see-er. In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus himself demonstrates this when he turns the lawyer’s question back to him: “What is written in the Law? How do you read?” [Lk.10.26]
The closing words of Schweitzer’s ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ remain intriguing:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words: ‘Follow me!, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfil in our time. He commands. And to those who harken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labours, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they will learn who he is… Fortress Classics, google books 487
As an erratic follower, for me “the good Jesus” is the Jesus who gives himself for the good of all people. Who feels close to a loving Father God who robes the lilies with splendor and cares for the sparrows. Who invites all to feel close to that Father. Who breaks taboos for the sake of human need. Who does not flinch from confronting the powers of evil. Who identifies with “the least of these.” Who commands us to actively love our enemies and one another. This is the good Jesus I like to think about and reinforce for the people I speak to in nursing homes, hospice, and sometimes congregations.
The Jesus I do not want to lend any support to is the Jesus who denigrates Mohammed (peace be upon him), Buddha, Confucius, others; the Jesus who blesses “preventive war”; the Jesus who is fine with some living opulently while others struggle for sustenance; the Jesus who says Believe three impossible things before breakfast (as the Queen of Wonderland said to Alice) or else hell; the Jesus who did not speak about homosexuality but is invoked against gay marriage. This is the Jesus whom I see little support for in the gospels, but whom I often hear proclaimed.
I love the gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ inaugural sermon – when they hand Jesus the scroll of Isaiah and he reads from chapter 61:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
To comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of his splendor.
Luke says the eyes of all were fixed upon Jesus; he sat down to teach and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
With the exception of vengeance, I have felt this my calling as well…. and, maybe not vengeance, but I would not mind a little bit of heavenly justice rolling down. (Yes, I know it would roll over me as well.) I love it that Jesus goes on to talk about God’s care for the despised Gentiles – so despised that upon hearing this, Jesus’ hometown community tries to throw him off a crag. This is the Jesus that I vowed to attempt to follow.
At my ordination service, the sermon was preached by a minister whose beloved is the same gender as she. Her partner read from our Book of Confessions how “the Spirit gives us courage…to hear the voices of peoples long silenced….”; we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; – and Benj and others sang that anthem of inclusion, “All God’s Critters Got a Place In the Choir.” (Afterward, one of the regional denominational officials told me he thought that should be sung at every ordination.)
It took thirty-five years for me to work my way through saying farewell to the negative (in my view) Jesus and tentatively begin to – as Brother Thich put it – “touch” the “good Jesus.” Learning from a Sufi friend over the past several years, I’ve been struck by the notion that there is “a Sufi way” – a compassionate, mystical way – of approaching anything; and I was surprised when she affirmed my wondering whether one could say that Jesus took a Sufi way through Judaism. A person could certainly take compassion as a bedrock approach to life, in any tradition… a Sufi way!
Recent reading and conversations with atheists, especially in the blog “Rational Doubt” which features former Christian leaders, have resulted in my relation to the historical Jesus being a little more tentative — while at the same time a little more reality-based, especially upon re-meeting Dominic Crossan. His earlier-mentioned book “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation” argues from Pilate’s reaction to Jesus that Jesus was a nonviolent political activist, and that that provides a “canon within the canon” of nonviolence. I find this very promising, and am beginning to read closely his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.”
Meanwhile, conversations on Rational Doubt have also made me more sensitive to the harm that some ideas about Jesus can do, and are making me think about a need to be forceful in lifting up the better, in my strong view. Perhaps oddly, I am thinking of that as perhaps a current calling. I’m wondering how that might be related to a mix of other factors: my feeling increasingly less drawn to hospice, the rise of the “none’s,” and the dramatic explorations underway like NextChurch in our denomination.
At this stage of life, perhaps it’s time for theology, astrophysics, and household sorting? And poetry
“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now….”